One Year of Curious Sengi

Image credit: Black and Rufous Sengi (Rhynchocyon petersi).  Philadelphia Zoo / Curious Sengi.

Thanks for reading Curious Sengi!

Let’s keep snurfling and discovering all sorts of wonderful things about the living world around us.  I look forward to sharing what I find with you!


Darwin’s Birthday Albums


Not a birthday album, but an album of family pictures on display at Darwin’s Down House estate.  Image credit: English Heritage Blog.

The celebration of Charles Darwin’s birthday (aka Darwin Day) has become an international event in recent years.  But how did people celebrate Darwin’s birthday during his lifetime?

When Darwin turned sixty-eight years old in 1877, he received two large parcels in the mail.  One was from Germany, a luxuriously-bound album containing the photographs and signatures of 154 German scientists and naturalists.  The second parcel was another photographic album of admirers, this time from the Netherlands (Darwin 1877; Browne 2002).  Darwin wrote back graciously to Professor A. van Bemmelen, who organized the effort:

SIR,—I received yesterday the magnificent present of the album, together with your letter. I hope that you will endeavour to find some means to express to the two hundred and seventeen distinguished observers and lovers of natural science, who have sent me their photographs, my gratitude for their extreme kindness. I feel deeply gratified by this gift, and I do not think that any testimonial more honourable to me could have been imagined. I am well aware that my books could never have been written, and would not have made any impression on the public mind, had not an immense amount of material been collected by a long series of admirable observers; and it is to them that honour is chiefly due. I suppose that every worker at science occasionally feels depressed, and doubts whether what he has published has been worth the labour which it has cost him, but for the few remaining years of my life, whenever I want cheering, I will look at the portraits of my distinguished co-workers in the field of science, and remember their generous sympathy. When I die, the album will be a most precious bequest to my children. I must further express my obligation for the very interesting history contained in your letter of the progress of opinion in the Netherlands, with respect to Evolution, the whole of which is quite new to me. I must again thank all my kind friends, from my heart, for their ever-memorable testimonial, and I remain, Sir,

Your obliged and grateful servant,


At this point in his career, Darwin had already published his major works:  The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), On the Origin of Species (1859), The Descent of Man (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).  He was very much in the public eye, whether as a hero of science or as the villain set on destroying the cozy blinders of Victorian religious faith.  As a man who treasured quietude and harmony, the rancor raised by his theory of evolution by natural selection was deeply distressing.  I do not believe that Darwin’s letter to van Bemmelen expresses any sort of false modesty, but a true gratitude, both for kindness and the international effort necessary for advancing science.  Even Darwin’s wife, Emma, wrote of the arrival of the gift from the Netherlands:

. . . .yesterday arrived a most gorgeous purple velvet & silver Dutch album of the same sort with 219 portraits — some of youths, some girls & some fat women, I suppose any one who subscribed.  However it shews a v. different state of feeling about him.  You wd. not get boys & fat women in England to subscribe & send him their photos as a mark of respect (quoted from Browne 2002).

An international community of scientists, naturalists, and enthusiasts have continued to commemorate Darwin’s birthday, even after his death in 1882.  The Darwin Day movement began in the United States in the early 2000’s, quickly blossoming into coordinated events celebrating Darwin, evolution, and science education (Wikipedia 2016).

So let’s pick up our glasses and toast to the man, Charles Darwin!


Image credit: Ainsley Seago at


Browne, Janet.  2002.  Charles Darwin:  The Power of Place.  New York, NY:  Alfred A. Knopf.

Darwin, Charles.  1887.  The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter, Volume 3.  Francis Darwin, ed.  London:  John Murray.

Wikipedia contributors.  “Darwin Day.”  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 December 2016.  Accessed 12 February 2017.

James Madison Dissects a Weasel


Illustration of two European mustelids, the Belette (Mustela nivalis) and L’Hermine (Mustela erminea), from Volume 7 of Illustrations de Histoire naturelle générale et particulière avec la description du Roy (1758).  James Madison consulted this work when describing his own locally-caught weasel.  Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few years before authoring the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, James Madison (1751 – 1836) was sitting at home in his Virginia estate, dissecting a weasel and writing up his detailed results in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826).

This letter — dated June 19th, 1786 — is a remarkable one, the sort of enlightened discourse one imagines of such great minds.  It begins with a discussion about the nature of poverty in Europe (described by Jefferson in a previous letter) and the United States, as well as the presumptive role the mode of government had in shaping the existence of the poorer classes.  A little report on the weather and the crops, then Madison expresses “. . . a little itch to gain a smattering in chymistry.  Will you be kind eno’ to pick up some good elementary treatise for me. . .[?]”  There is a brief paragraph on pushing through a state legislative bill for road repair and maintenance.  Then come the weasels.


James Madison, statesman of Virginia, co-author of the “Federalist Papers”, architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, 4th President of the United States, dissector of weasels.  Image credit: Gilbert Stuart: The Complete Works.

Madison explains that the body of a female weasel (Mustela frenata) came into his possession and then continues to fill up over two pages (in this four page letter) with detailed descriptions of the animal.  Here is a taste:

Its colour corresponded with the description given by D’Aubenton of the Belette & Roselet or Hermine in its summer dress, excepting only that the belly &c. which in the European animal was white, was in ours of a lightish yellow, save only the part under the lower jaws which was white for about ½ an inch back from the under lip. The little brown spots near the corners of the mouth mentioned by D’Aubenton were peninsular. The tail was of the color of the back &c. all but the end which was black. The ears were extremely thin, had a fold or duplication on the lower part of the conque about 2 lines deep, and at the margin all around were covered with a very fine short hair or fur of the colour nearly of the back. The rest of the ear was in a manner naked, and of a lightish color.

Madison just keeps on going. . . .  and these were not just superficial observations.  The man measured weasel kidneys in three dimensions and counted the number of ridges in the palate.  Whether to wife Dolley’s consternation or approval we may never know, but Madison was digging into the anatomy of small mammals with the same sort of intensity with which he approached national constitutions.


An example of the beast in question:  the Long-Tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata).  Weasels are fierce little carnivores, occasionally taking down prey many times their own size.  Image credit: Evan Jenkins via Flickr.

There is little doubt that Madison was emulating his correspondent and role model Jefferson by drawing up charts comparing a variety of anatomical measurements between his weasel and the European “Belette” and “Hermine.”  These tables of measurements reflect those published by Jefferson the previous year in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).  What Madison was doing was comparing the anatomy of his American weasel with European species as described by the natural history authority, Louis Jean Marie Daubenton (1716 – 1800), for the purpose of building up evidence against Old World ideas about biology.  Madison’s specific conclusion from his dissection of the weasel:

The result of the comparison seems to be that notwithstanding the blackness of the end of the tail & whiteness of the feet, which are regarded as characteristics of the Hermine contradistinguishing it from the belette, our weasel cannot be of the former species, and is nothing more than a variety of the latter. This conclusion is the stronger, as the manners of our weasel correspond more nearly with those of the Belette, than with those of the Hermine. And if it be a just conclusion, it may possibly make one exception to Buffon’s position that no animal is common to the two continents that cannot bear the climate where they join; as it certainly contradicts his assertion that of the animals common to the two continents, those of the new are in every instance smaller than those of the old.

In this last statement, Madison is referring to prominent French naturalists such as Daubenton and the Comte de Buffon (1707 – 1788) who claimed that America was only capable of producing puny counterparts to European species.  This notion of degeneracy was summarized by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia:

The opinion advanced by the Count de Buffon is 1. That the animals common to both the old and new world, are smaller in the latter.  2. That those peculiar to the new are on a smaller scale.  3. That those which have been domesticated in both, have degenerated in America: and 4. That on the whole it exhibits fewer species.  And the reason he thinks is, that the heats of America are less. . . . that heat is friendly, and moisture adverse to the production and development of large quadrupeds.

It did not take much imagination to figure out that degeneracy applied not just to animals, but to people as well.  This was a humiliating and detrimental statement against a newly-birthed nation striving to assert its independent identity and ability to thrive in the face of global skepticism.  It was also blatantly contradictory to what Americans observed daily on their farms, in the forests, and in the ranks of their own fellow citizens.  Men like Madison and Jefferson — as well as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton — were infuriated by such pretentious Old World assumptions about the New World (Dugatkin 2009), assumptions that were not based on records of observed facts, but upon some kind of arbitrary, feel-good narrative.  No sophisticated argument was necessary to simply show that North American animals are not categorically diminutive compared to European ones.  But it was still important to make sure those data were carefully collected and circulated.  Eventually, the idea of degeneracy lost steam and died out.


Madison’s letter to Jefferson included this rather spectacular table of measurements comparing his weasel (left column) with European species (middle and right columns).  As Mythbuster Adam Savage said:  “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”  Well, honestly, I cannot imagine Madison screwing around.  Image credit: Library of Congress.

I wonder if it should be remarkable to us in this modern age, to learn that these men who led the American Revolution and the early days of the Republic — many of whom would serve as President of the United States — engaged in what we would recognize as science.  They were not necessarily scientists, though they thought scientifically.  Science also had a broader meaning in the 18th century, a meaning that stood at the foundation of the Enlightenment ideal.  Science was the application of empirical, experimental studies for the betterment of the human condition.  Science was the triumph of reason and Nature’s laws over fanaticism.

Take, for example, wealthy farmers such as Jefferson, Madison, George Washington, and John Adams.  They were all involved in agricultural research of some sort, keeping extensive multi-year records in an effort to develop better compost mixes, meteorological predictions, plant cultivars best suited for a given climate, and methods of crop rotation (Engle 2002; Druckenbrod et al. 2003; “George Washington and Agriculture”).  Of course, increasing crop yields did contribute directly to personal gains in wealth, but it was also about making gains in national wealth.  As gentlemen farmers, these men felt an obligation to be the experimenters because they were in a better position to absorb the costs of failure impossible for smaller subsistence farmers (“George Washington and Agriculture”).  What they learned, they shared in the interest of making the new United States a profitable and self-sustaining continent.  In turn, this made the largely isolationist policy of the Early Republic possible during those vulnerable, fledgling years.

Science had a real impact on the fate of the United States.  Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, and their compatriots understood this.

Science continues to have a real impact on the fate of the United States and the world, but I am much less confident that our elected leadership understands this.

For all the things we may find distasteful, hypocritical, or abhorrent about the 18th century world that produced the Age of Enlightenment, I think we still must admire the dedication to the painstaking business of improving the state of humankind through reason, sympathy, and a better understanding of Nature.  Certainly, science has changed a lot since the days of Madison dissecting a weasel at home in Montpelier.  A lot of research now requires specialized facilities and training only available through higher level university education.  There are increasingly more specialized niche fields with their own language and communities, each one producing more published literature than can possibly be consumed or understood.  But this is no excuse to reject science.  This is no excuse to ignore the thousands upon thousands of scientists reaching out to the public and shouting themselves hoarse over the reality of climate change.

We must strive to be James Madisons and Thomas Jeffersons in our own right.  Let us be driven by intellectual curiosity for the world around us.  Let us be willing to get our hands dirty to study the evidence for ourselves.  Let us share what we have found through thoughtful civil discourse.  And let us not easily dismiss the weasel as insignificant — for even the small and eccentric can hold the key to some big ideas!


Druckenbrod, Daniel L. et al.  2003.  “Late-Eighteenth-Century Precipitation Reconstructions from James Madison’s Montpelier Plantation.”  American Meteorological Society:  57 – 71.

Dugatkin, Lee Alan.  2009.  Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose:  Natural History in Early America.  Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago Press.

Engle, Corliss Knapp.  2002.  “John Adams, Farmer and Gardener.”  Arnoldia 61 (4):  9 – 14

George Washington and Agriculture.”  The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington.  Accessed 14 November 2016.

Jefferson, Thomas.  1786.  Notes on the State of Virginia.  Published in The Portable Thomas Jefferson.  1975.  Merrill D. Peterson, ed.  New York, NY:  Penguin Books.

Jefferson, Thomas, and James Madison. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, June 19, 1786.  1786. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.  Accessed 11 November 2016.


Getting Inside “The Elephant’s Head”

Greetings, fellow snurflers!

Pre-quals are coming up this week and as I am preparing a presentation on my proposed doctoral research into the evolutionary origins and specialization of mammalian facial muscles, I wanted to share with you a key text in this field of research.  Boas and Paulli’s two volume work, The Elephant’s Head, is not just scientifically significant, it is also a deeply beautiful illustrated work.


The first volume of The Elephant’s Head was published in 1908, with the second volume following many years later in 1925.  As far as I can tell, this monograph cannot be obtained for love or money. . . . luckily, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale had a copy available for study under the watchful eye of librarians.  The volumes consist of unbound, loose leaves.  The pages are huge, though ironically, not elephant folio-sized.  All of the images in this post are photographs I took while wobbling around on tiptoe, trying to get the whole page into frame without causing too much of a scene!  Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Curious Sengi.


Schematic drawing showing muscle fiber orientation for the buccinator (cheek) and muscles surrounding the eyes.  Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Curious Sengi.

The supposed genesis of this masterwork was around the year 1899, with the death of a young Indian elephant from the Copenhagen Zoo.  Two Danish anatomists, Johan Erik Vesti Boas (1855 – 1935) and Simon Paulli (1865 – 1933), seized the opportunity to study the body, especially the head and proboscis.  What Boas and Paulli quickly discovered was that in order to properly understand the anatomy of the elephant’s highly specialized head, it was necessary to engage in a comparative survey of the facial musculature of a wide variety of mammals.  Over the next several years and what I imagine are many dozens of dissections later on specimens provided by the zoo, Boas and Paulli were prepared to publish the first installment of the most comprehensive zoological study of facial musculature ever before or since.

So here’s hoping that pre-quals goes by with the average amount of snot and tears (I am not even asking for the minimum amount), and that we can continue in this tradition of producing beautiful and meticulous comparative anatomy!


Comparative snoot muscle anatomy. From top to bottom: elk, coati, hedgehog, dromedary, and wapiti. (I admit to being a bit confused about the nomenclature here, as my understanding is that the elk and wapiti generally refer to the same animal — any ideas?)  Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Curious Sengi.

The Mole Hunter, Gillian Godfrey


This mole (Talpa spp.) is delighted you are here!  Image credit:  Cani Animali e Natura.

In celebration of Mole Day, we honor the life and research of Dr. Gillian Godfrey, who is largely remembered for her work on the life history of moles (the furry, digging kind) and writing popular books on the subject.

Gillian was described as “an extremely shy but fiercely dedicated zoologist”, who was drawn to ecology despite the “abominable lectures” given at Oxford University by Professor Charles S. Elton (1900 – 1991).  After the term ended, she contacted Elton about joining his Bureau of Animal Population, but she did so with little expectation that she could have any hand in the scientific work going on there:

Her interview with Elton was awkward.  He told her he didn’t care to have women in the Bureau just yet. She offered to work as a bottle washer and that did the trick.  There wasn’t much future in bottle washing he retorted, so she had better come and do research (Crowcroft 1991).

Attitudes towards women in science in the 1950s was, at best, greeted with amusement or skepticism, but Gillian joined a group investigating vole (Microtus spp.) biology and pursued an ambitious research project on the “factors affecting the survival, movements, and intraspecific relations during early life” in vole populations (do not worry, the moles will come later).


Vole (Microtus spp.)  Image credit: David Chapman via Saga Magazine.

The first step in this project was to induce the voles to nest so she could reliably return to her study subjects and trace their life histories.

With great single-mindedness, and almost no experience with hand tools, she set about mass producing nest boxes in D.K.’s [technician Denys Kempson’s] workshop.  After his initial consternation, not because of the possibility of her injuring herself, but because he feared she might damage his tools, he diplomatically suggested that she work undisturbed in the field store.  For many days the corridor echoed with the sounds of saw and hammer, and Gillian emerged with large numbers of wooden nest boxes with removable lids (Crowcroft 1991).

For all the work and enthusiasm poured into building nest boxes of all kinds of design, the voles were unappreciative of the effort and continued to built their own nests in clandestine locations (Crowcroft 1991).  So Gillian proceeded to comb every square inch of her study site, crawling about on her hands and knees, parting the long tussock grass, finding plenty of old nests, and learning more about the private life of voles than this frustrating exercise initially promised (Crowcroft 1991; Chitty 1996).  But this was no way to gather data for her project.

Then, in an inspired change of tactics brought about by the failure of the voles to use her nest boxes, she set out to trace their movements and find their nests by putting radioactive rings on their legs and finding them with a Geiger-Müller counter.  She was greatly assisted on the technical side by a physicist with amorous ambitions which were fruitless and ill-conceived.  Cobalt 60 wire was obtained. . . . before the Boss got wind of the project.  He was pretty upset by her initiative, but saw that the technique had such great possibilities that she got away with it.  This was the first time small mammals had been tracked in this fashion. . . . I [Crowcroft] still have some mental discomfort when I recall cutting up the wire for Gillian with two pairs of pliers, and rescuing bits that flew off by using the screaming Geiger counter (Crowcroft 1991).


The portable Geiger-counter-on-a-stick used to trace the location of voles through the thick grass.  Image credit: Godfrey 1954.

It was a brilliant innovation, one Gillian claimed was inspired by the use of radioactive materials to track the movements of click beetles (Agriotes spp.) (Godfrey 1954).  By mounting a Geiger counter on the end of a pole, it was possible to sweep large areas of habitat and locate an individual animal (Mellanby 1971).  In writing up her novel methodology, Gillian acknowledged the advantage of this relatively non-invasive technique, since:  “Nearly all available information about small wild animals has been obtained by indirect methods. . . .and it is usually impossible to assess the errors introduced.  Trapping is frequently used in studies on movements but probably affects normal behaviour (Godfrey 1954).”

There were other breakthroughs to be had.  Crowcroft (1991) writes:

I can recall finding Gillian in the vole room, hands streaming with blood and face streaked with tears, bravely pressing on with vole examinations, and explaining with great embarrassment, “Oh, but they bite so hard!”  A few weeks later she was deftly holding them by the loose skin of the back with one hand, palpating the abdomen with the other.

One imagines that this determination and persistence carried Gillian through the tough years doing her doctorate.  While composing her thesis, she was caught in the cross-currents of opposing views held by her examiners.  Forced to write and re-write sections to appease these men who considered each other heretics, Gillian still navigated the conflicting torrents, and emerged triumphant.  She was granted a doctorate by Oxford University in 1953 and was the first woman to complete such a degree in the Bureau of Animal Population (Crowcroft 1991; Chitty 1996).


What the radioactive tracking data look like for a single vole.  For this given research project, Gillian collected 709 recordings of 23 animals.  These maps showed the average distance between farthest points of capture was 29.04 yards (26.6 m), encompassing an area of 235.17 square yards (215.04 square meters).  Data like these provide important information on the life history and distribution of these small mammals.  Image credit: Godfrey 1954.


Moles are incredibly adapted to life digging underground:  reduced, almost useless eyes, ears lacking any external pinnae, and powerful digging forelimbs.  Since moles spend nearly all their lives underground, it had been almost impossible to reliably track their daily movements.  Image credit: Mellanby 1971.

Gillian applied the same radioactive tagging technique to study the movement of moles (Talpa spp.), which are true insectivorans and not rodents like voles.  This method was ideal for tracking these secretive animals.  Instead of ringing the leg, a metal band with a soldered capsule containing radioactive Cobalt 60 was fixed to the mole’s conveniently club-shaped tail, which did not permit the ring to slip off when secured at the base.  The ring could be detected up to 30 cm (1 ft) underground using the Geiger counter.


This drawing demonstrates the mole’s club-shaped tail:  constricted at the base and widening towards the end.  The black rectangle represents the position of the radioactive tracking ring.  The shape of the tail prevented the ring from slipping off.  Image credit: Mellanby 1971.

Even though Gillian’s tracking method became more sophisticated over the years, it was still a hazardous business to work with radioactive materials.  Though she only tracked one animal at a time, she still had to be careful that the animals did not escape from the study site and leave radioactive rings strewn all over the English countryside.  Of course, there was concern that prolonged exposure to Cobalt 60 would have a deleterious effect on the moles.  Despite all these dangers, Gillian discovered a lot about these animals, including their reproductive habits, home range, and propensity towards three bouts of periodic activity over a 24 hour period (Mellanby 1971).  In 1960, Gillian and her husband, Peter Crowcroft, a Tasmanian zoologist and zoo director (Chitty 1996), published The Life of the Mole, which received both academic and popular praise (Kettlewell 1961).


Image credit:  Oxfam.


Image credit:

Unfortunately, Gillian Godfrey’s own trail quickly goes cold.  Like many women of her time, Gillian was largely defined by her husband.  She married Peter Crowcroft in 1952, while they were still students together at Oxford (Lidicker & Pucek 1997).  We learn from an article in the Chicago Tribune that Peter was hired to be director of the Brookfield Zoo in 1968.  At the time, Gillian was researching marsupials at the University of Adelaide, but would soon leave to join Peter in Chicago.  Upon Peter’s death in 1996 at the age of 73, we read in his obituary that Gillian was, in fact, his second wife.  But at the time of publication, she had disappeared from the picture and Peter was survived by another wife, Lisette.


Gillian seems to have retained her maiden name throughout her scientific career, but sometimes it was necessary to remind people to whom she was married.  Image credit: Godfrey 1954.

What happened to Gillian?  The answers are harder to find.  Radioactive tagging is no longer used to track animal movements in the field, so it is quite likely this contributed to her work fading from scientific consciousness.  But it was an ingenious solution to the problem of following shy, elusive animals in way that was least disruptive to their habits.  Were there more ingenious solutions to address new questions that sparked her interest?  I wish that I were able to find more information about Gillian’s later life and career, and that I could provide some kind of conclusion to this story.

So, Gillian, if you are out there, I hope you know that we think you are amazing!


Gillian out the field, listening for radioactive small mammals.  Image credit: Godfrey 1954.


Australian New Zoo Head at Brookfield.”  Chicago Tribune.  7 February 1968:  4.  Chicago Tribune.  Web. Accessed 20 October 2016.

Chitty, Dennis.  1996.  “Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?  Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts.”  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press.

Crowcroft, Peter. 1991.  Elton’s Ecologists:  A History of the Bureau of Animal Population.  Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press.

Kettlewell, H.B.D.  1961.  “All about the mole.”  New Scientist 9 (217):  107.

Lidicker, W.Z. & Z. Pucek.  1997.  “William Peter Crowcroft (1922 – 1996).”  Acta Theriologica 42 (3):  343 – 349.

Mellanby, Kenneth.  1971.  The Mole.  New York, NY:  Taplinger Publishing Company.  

Joseph Leidy and The Little Turtles


Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

To celebrate the beginning of a new school year, I wanted to share some fond memories students had of the great scientist and teacher, Joseph Leidy (1823 – 1891), who also celebrated a birthday a few days ago on September 9th.  It is difficult to describe Leidy in such a short space.  Among many other things, he was America’s first vertebrate paleontologist and early explorer of the West for fossils of large extinct animals, parasitologist who discovered the source of trichinosis in undercooked pork, accomplished microscopist who was among the first to apply medical forensic evidence in a murder trial, scientific artist, and an all around nice guy (Warren 1998).  Leidy is largely lost to us today because he was a true and gracious gentleman, a misfortune in a world where scandalous personalities have an infinitely longer shelf life.

But Leidy had a lasting impact on those who met him.  Paleontologist William Berryman Scott (1858 – 1947) recalled the frantic, anxious days of being a young scientist:

We were constantly running to Philadelphia and the Academy to see Leidy’s types to compare our material with that which he had described and named, and to ask his advice and help.  And, though we were mere tyros, beginners, utterly insignificant, he was invariably kind and considerate and thoughtful, and as lavish in the gift of his time, as though he had nothing else to do. . . . He had that sweetness and gentleness of personality that are so attractive when united with greatness.  I have known a few great men in my life, and without exception they have been men of extraordinary simplicity, without any airs, or graces (William Berryman Scott 1923; quoted in Warren 1998).


Young Leidy brooding next to a Hadrosaurus leg bone.  Image credit: Mike Hardcastle at Cosmic Polymath.

Perhaps one of them most enduring stories about Leidy’s personality comes from his days teaching at a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia:

I heard no long ago, a story about one of our own naturalists, Dr. Joseph Leidy.  The little incident took place during the time he was actively connected with Swarthmore College.  Wishing to make some study or observations with regard to turtles, he obtained some of them from a pond near the college, saying, as he took them up, ‘I’ll bring you back again, little turtles.’

When he reached his home in the city, he found word awaiting him which necessitated an almost immediate trip abroad; but, however pressing his business was, it did not cause him to forget his promise to the little turtles.  The next day was Sunday, and, having no other time to fulfill his promise, he determined to do it then.  And now another obstacle arose.  There was no train which he could conveniently take.  But true to that old adage, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ the doctor walked out to the college, a distance of about ten miles and restored the turtles to their home.  From this little act alone we see how great must be the kind-heartedness of the man and his faithfulness to his word (The Swarthmore Phoenix, 1 December 1888).

This anecdote has been told and retold with occasional embellishment, but the essence is always the same.  Here is a human being who exercised his curiosity about Nature, but understood the responsibility to prevent unnecessary harm.  He felt such empathy and respect for Nature, that even a seemingly silly promise to some lowly reptiles was to be faithfully honored.  And if Leidy was willing to walk out ten miles just to return some turtles into a pond, how far would he go to help a student, friend, or colleague?  Whether we are the students or the teachers (or both), let us always remember what it is like to be the little turtles and how far fulfilling a promise can go.

What stories do you have about your favorite teachers?

Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles London, Paris, and Frankfort :H. Sotheran, J. Baer & co.,1872.

Thanks, Dr. Leidy!  We don’t know exactly what kind of animal Leidy returned to the waters of Crum Creek that borders the Swarthmore College campus, by Emys geographica is a North American native with some geographical distribution in Pennsylvania.  Image credit:  Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.  1872.  London, Paris, and Frankfort:H. Sotheran, J. Baer & Co. via Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr.



For a number of years, students at Swarthmore College renamed their scientific society in honor of the beloved late Professor Leidy.  Image credit:  Swarthmore College, Halcyon 1897.


The Swarthmore Phoenix.  “A Reminiscence of Dr. Leidy.”  The Swarthmore Phoenix [Swarthmore, PA].  1 December 1888:  76.

Warren, Leonard.  1998.  Joseph Leidy:  The Last Man Who Knew Everything.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.